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A good drilling deal

A House vote gives Florida's coast some protection from offshore oil rigs. Now it's up to our senators to defend, or improve, that deal.

By Times editorial
Published July 2, 2006

Prohibitions against offshore drilling that had protected the Florida coast for more than 20 years were tossed aside by the U.S. House Thursday night after a loud, dishonest debate. Yet when the smoke cleared, Florida found itself in a better position than expected. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, a Pinellas County Republican, and two colleagues succeeded in a last-minute effort to push the no-drilling line to 235 miles off west coast beaches.

That important partial victory in what could have been a night of unqualified defeat shows why it's important not to give up the fight too early. Gov. Jeb Bush and some of the state's Republican delegation already had capitulated on a bill being pushed by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., that otherwise allows drilling within 50 miles of the nation's shores. The bill lets state legislatures seek an additional 50-mile exemption, a request that would have to be repeated every five years. That would be no sure thing in Florida, where too many state lawmakers are beholden to special interests and a power-hungry business lobby already is clamoring for more drilling.

Picking up on an argument first advanced by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Young and Reps. Jeff Miller, R-Chumuckla, and Allen Boyd, D-Monticello, successfully introduced an amendment extending the drilling ban to the Military Mission Line in the gulf, which runs south starting near Fort Walton Beach in the Panhandle. The amended bill gives permanent protection to any waters east of that line - an area used by the military for practice missions involving airplanes, ships and submarines. That would put drilling no closer than 235 miles to Pinellas County beaches, a much more reasonable distance.

While the gulf coast can breath a sigh of relief, the bill is still a threat to Florida's east coast and other coastal states that opposed it. Typical of their responses was that of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who called the House vote "an alarming development" that will "weaken California's protections from any new oil and gas leasing." That's a tough stand that Floridians should have expected from their own governor.

The level of political rhetoric was also disappointing. Many backers of the bill implied that more drilling will reduce gasoline prices. It won't, because there aren't enough oil reserves in the entire country to make a significant impact, particularly given growing worldwide consumption.

Another false promise is that offshore drilling is safe for the environment. Some lawmakers even boasted that Hurricane Katrina caused no oil spills. That's a lie. While there was no major offshore leakage as there was in a prior storm, Katrina damaged more than 100 drilling rigs and released at least 9-million gallons of oil into the environment, mostly on land, making it nearly as big a catastrophe as the Exxon Valdez spill. To those afflicted, it probably didn't matter whether the threat came from an offshore rig, underwater pipeline, barge or storage facility.

The only way America can make real headway against our increasing need for foreign oil is through greater fuel efficiency and development of alternative fuels. Both of those issues were an afterthought in the House debate. Make no mistake. This bill was motivated by one thing: money. The oil industry is seeking even bigger profits and the state more generous drilling royalties. On that last point, even President Bush balked, warning that the bill's giveaway of royalties that usually go to the U.S. Treasury would deepen the federal deficit.

Credit Young for cutting the best deal the state has gotten so far. His reputation as a defender of Florida's beaches and tourist industry is intact. For more than two decades he wrangled yearly protection against offshore drilling, and he correctly noted that the political tide had turned toward drilling.

"Permanence is important," Young said, and under the final House bill Florida's Gulf Coast would get permanent protection to the Military Mission Line.

As the debate moves to the Senate, Nelson and Republican Sen. Mel Martinez have vowed to continue the fight. Floridians will be counting on them, because they can't count on the governor to push for a better deal. There will be many hurdles ahead, but at least the senators know the bottom line. Start by giving up no more than the House bill, and try to do even better.

[Last modified July 1, 2006, 22:36:13]

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